For the first time in my life, I have a place of my own. My 400-square-foot apartment isn't much, but the more time I spend in it, the more I realize that it's plenty of space for me. And the best part is that when I turn my stereo on, it fills the entire space with sound. I can hear NPR in the bathroom in the morning, and I can dance around my kitchen to my latest favorite CD as I make dinner.
Lately, Hot Hot Heat's first proper full-length Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop) has been filling the dinner-making listening spot quite aptly. And I'm sure that if any of my neighbors are peering into my apartment, they are incredibly amused by my epileptic dance moves and my exaggerated crooning into a wooden-spoon "microphone."
On Make Up the Breakdown, Hot Hot Heat's sound proves enjoyable because of its amalgamative quality, the way that it combines the influence of different eras of music (mod, prog, new wave), the way that the music is both familiar (sometimes to the degree that I am left searching the folds of my brain for the song I think they are "borrowing from") and entirely new within the confines of the same song. Though the Victoria, B.C.-based quartet have toned down their spasmodic sound constructions from their previous, 15-minute-burst-of-energy Knock Knock Knock EP (Sub Pop), they have done so without compromising their engaging melodic quality or idiosyncratic energy.
"Get In or Get Out" and "Naked in the City" are prime examples of Hot Hot Heat's ability to use the vocal line as part of the song structure while burying the words' meaning within the sound. The listener is forced to become the amateur archaeologist in order to unearth coherent lyrical phrases from the layers of sound and singer/keyboardist Steve Bays' hyperactive, malleable vocal delivery. And while most of the songs sound like the soundtrack to a great dance party, throughout the record Bays' vocals expose both the harshness and the romanticism of a young person's life in the city.
Through his strained wails and bouncing sing-speak, Bays offers up
descriptive fragments on topics ranging from drunkenness and neediness to
tax returns and poverty to failed romantic
relationships. On the album-opening "Naked in the City Again," Dante DeCaro's angular guitar lines crescendo into a sleigh bell-accompanied sing-along proclaiming "Lost and naked in the city again/ Intoxicated by a quarter to 10," like it's the chorus of some demented Christmas carol. The quarter-note and organ-like keyboard-hook-driven "Get In or Get Out" rephrases the notion of home-is-where-the-heart-is, when the chorus simply conveys "Ugly or pretty/ It's still my city/ Say what you will/ But get in or get out."
Bays unleashes arpeggiated giddiness on the chorus of the album standout, "Bandages," bending and twisting the title word so it sounds quite like "bangle jells" I know it means nothing, but it's still insanely catchy in its nonsensicalness. His organ-like keyboards, along with bassist Dustin Hawthorne and drummer Paul Hawley's hi-hat-driven rhythm work, provide the solid foundation for harmonic futzing and a reggae-ish bridge music so upbeat and exciting that you could miss the song's dark subject matter through the first few listens, and the meaning of the final ecstatic/horrific call of "Bandages/ On my legs and my arms/ From you."
The record culminates in the toned-down ballad "In Cairo." The band's usually brisk and frenetic pace is reduced to andante shaped by an expansive, meandering piano line and sparse rhythm work, which eventually develops into a full-on jam with guitar licks slashing and drums and bass storming until they fade away and only the piano is left for one final phrase.
Hot Hot Heat's compelling energy, original hooks and rhythms, and quirky, sometimes indiscernible lyrics combine to make Make Up the Breakdown one of the most energetic and enjoyable listens of the year. And unless you live with folks who believe rock 'n' roll to be the devil's music, I can't think of any reason that this record won't also have you dancing around your kitchen, wooden spoon in tow.